Dance photography – how I work

As you may have seen from my photos, I have shot a lot of dance; and I get loads of questions about how I work. So here goes…

Quality over quantity, always. I find that to get great dance photos, both I and the dancers have to put in a lot of effort, patience and perseverance. My objective with every finished image is to get a picture that is as close to perfect as possible and that just doesn’t happen by merrily snapping away with a camera in ‘machine gun’ mode.

Photographing dance is a process of combining two antithetical art forms. Where dance is all about movement, the passage of time and space; photography is fundamentally stillness. I think the biggest and most difficult part of my job is to spot the defining, the most beautiful, and the most interesting moment within the movement.

When I first start working with a dancer I usually like to watch him or her warm up and then run through a class routine or a favourite piece of choreography. This gives me a chance to assess the best way to capture the particular individual. Then the hunt begins. The hunt for a movement that will work as a still image.

Once a move catches my eye I will ask the dancer to go again and I’ll take a snap shot. I look at the image (with the joy of digital!) and try to find faults with it. Then, I change something that I’m doing or the dancer is doing and take another picture; then try and find fault with the new version. I keep on doing this over and over until I can’t find anything else that can be improved in the photograph. Most of the dance photos in my portfolio are the result of at least twenty images that have built up to the final version. It is a very intensive way of working but I think the results are worth it, after all, how many times have you looked at a dance photo and though, “it’s really nice, but…..” – I try and eliminate the “but…”

I also have my secret weapon, my wife Marion. Marion is a classically trained ballet dancer, a choreologist trained at the Benesh Institute, a highly experienced stage manager and a phenomenally good photography assistant!

Although I like to think I’ve picked up quite a bit of dance knowledge in my time, there is nothing like a person who has experienced it first hand. Marion translates my (sometimes very strange) requests into dancer language. She also keeps her eye on all the dance details like pointed feet, turn out and relaxed hands and faces; as well as being a genius at suggesting alterations to make movements work better ‘for the camera’.

I usually spend by far the most time working on dance photographs after the shoot. First off, there’s selection. Having taken dozens of photos in the search for perfection, I go through all the images and make sure only the very best is selected. I like to do this with help from the client and/or subject and from Marion, so that decisions are made collaboratively between dance and photography experts.

Once the best picture has been found, the processing and retouching begins. I usually do all of my own digital work, to make sure that the photograph is polished to perfection. This retouching can include anything from colour tweaking, to skin smoothing and blemish removal, to subtle body sculpting, to whole background swapping, to compositing several photos together.

This work can take many, many hours, but again I think it is worth it. A carefully processed image knocks the socks off a ‘straight from the camera’ shot every time.

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